The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements
Published by Headline Review
27th March 2013
'I like to give a token to those I care about.' She hands the package to me and I unpick the strings and unfold the linen. A pair of crimson satin ribbons gleams like rubies in the candlelight.
The ribbons nestle in my palm, coiled like shining snakes. They speak to me of my mother, twirling with red ribbons in her hair. Red - the colour of passion, the colour of the army, the colour of blood.
Sometimes death comes like an arrow, sudden and swift, an unforeseen shot from an unheeded bow. Sometimes death comes slowly, like the first small sparks of a green-wood fire, smoking and smouldering for the longest time before the kindling flares and the heart of the blaze glows with fierce, consuming heat.
Sometimes God chooses to end a life before it is even begun.
Born on May Day Esther Tuttle's baby should be a blessing, a symbol of fertility and hope bestowed upon the harvest to come. In these hard years of famine and war, God knows how much we need it. Instead, Annie Flowers, my mother, attending at the confinement, pulls from Esther's body a misshapen thing, slick with blood, bruised blue and purple.
The child's head is swollen, one eye unformed, leaving a gaping black hole, showing skull. Its tiny legs flop this way and that, as though the bones are gone. Its face reminds me of the graven gargoyles that watch over us from Ely's great cathedral. It does not cry. It does not breathe. A tiny coiled sprig nestling between its legs shows that it would have been a son, had it lived.
A dead baby is a bad omen, for the family, for the town, for my mother and me. The birth of a monster is even worse.
In these bleak, blighted days, when the crops fail, new lambs die of rot and travellers report malevolent spectres wandering the Fens, we are used to bad news. But this child is unlike any other my mother has brought into the world. This creature in her arms is more than just another bad birth. I know it straight away, just as she knows it.
It is May Day 1646. Ruth Flowers' mother Annie has just helped deliver a deformed baby; for this she will pay with her life. For Ruth, the only thing left to do is run from the home she shares with her master Oliver Cromwell and head for London, to hopeful safety with the Poole household. There she will know the very best of times, and the very worst of times, as the Civil War plays out in the background, and people begin to mistrust each other, particularly women.
As a historian, I loved Katherine Clements' debut novel. It's not heavy going, as some historical fiction can be, bogged down by too many facts or characters. It is a well woven tale, with enough characters to keep the story interesting and entertaining, coupled with an accurate picture of the raging Civil War. In some ways the book reminded me of Sarah Waters' novel Affinity which is the highest praise I can award it.
There are lots of points for discussion here, so book groups may like this one. I think it definitely deserves to be up there amongst some of the historical fiction greats as it's a beautifully drawn-out work. I particularly liked how both real and fictional characters are interspersed within the story, especially that of Elizabeth Poole and Oliver Cromwell.
* On Friday, I will be holding my first GIVEAWAY on here! I have a signed hardback first edition of Rebecca Mascull's The Visitors for one lucky follower! All you have to do is follow this blog, either through blogger or bloglovin and leave a comment on my post on FRIDAY to be in with a chance of winning!
Miss Chapter x